Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.


Early RiserDecline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

The Future is FascistFuturism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

Mystery and MeaningDictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Noshing on NoxiousnessNekro-Noxious: Toxic Tales of True Transgression in Miami Municipal Mortuary, Norberto Fetidescu (TransVisceral Books 2018)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Early Riser

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

The future of Futurism has come and gone, and in some ways it was exactly what Futurists wanted. They demanded speed, noise, and violence, after all, and the twentieth century provided enormous amounts of all three. And when I say “demanded”, that is exactly what I mean: like a political party, the Futurists had a manifesto, penned by Filippo Marinetti. Clause nine was this:

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

And if you’re thinking that sounds rather, well, fascist, you’re right, because Futurism, despite being an avant-garde, fetishistically modern movement, was closely allied with Italian fascism. If that news comes as a surprise when you open this book, prepare for another surprise as you leaf through it, because Futurist art, at least from masters like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, is actually interesting, even, whisper it, skilful. Sometimes attractive too.

What it isn’t, however, is particularly distinctive: much of the art reproduced in this book could have appeared in other books in the series, which covers movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century avant-garde like Cubism, Minimalism, and Surrealism. No, what makes Futurism distinctive is its bombast, its manifestos, and its political allegiances. They’re all described here, and refreshingly they’re not described in the usual stale bourgeois academese of most modern criticism in the arts.

That’s not to say all the text is worth reading: for me, analysing a picture is like analysing a joke: it destroys any spontaneous enjoyment. Art is about images and intuition; analysis is about words and logic. They take place in different parts of the brain and they shouldn’t be mixed. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to take Futurist paintings seriously than it is to take Futurist prose:

We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to Futurism in theory was Evelyn Waugh’s vignette in Brideshead Revisited (1945) of Futurism in action:

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes. (Part II, 3)

The battle in this instance was against the lower classes of Britain during the General Strike, and the attempt to join it ended like this:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

But the embers of Futurism are glowing yet, and this book is a good short survey of the pre-war fires of energy and excitement that created them.

Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Rich and fascinating in their own right, scientific names add greatly to the pleasure of natural history, commemorating both its roots in ancient history and the scientists who have laboured to systematize and classify the living world. So you can move from Achillea millefolium, “the thousand-leafed (medicinal) plant of Achilles” to Lonicera hildebrandiana, “Hildebrand’s plant of Lonitzer”. Achilles will need no introduction; Adam Lonitzer (1528-86) was a German naturalist and A.H. Hildebrand (1852-1918) a British plant-collector. I was disappointed at first to learn where Lonicera came from, because it’s an attractive name that I thought would have some suitably attractive meaning in Latin or Greek. After all, the most famous member of the genus is L. periclymenum, or honeysuckle.

But beauty from banality is appropriate enough for plants, and there are countless beautiful meanings elsewhere. Strange ones too, like Lycopersicum esculentum, “tasty wolf-peach”, a.k.a the tomato, and Dranunculus muscivorus, “fly-eating little dragon”. That last plant reveals one of the book’s minor flaws, however, because it’s also listed under its alternative name of Helicidiceros muscivorus. But the listing refers you straight to D. muscivorus and you’ll have to go outside this book to find out what Helicidiceros means (“the helical plant with two horns”, apparently).

That apart, Dictionary of Plant Names should fascinate and delight any serious gardener or plant-lover and almost all of the names vanish into mystery in the end, because even the ones that have millennia of written history in Latin or Greek go back into many more millennia of prehistory.

The man ultimately responsible for this feast of mystery and meaning, beauty and strangeness, was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who invented the binomial system — generic name with initial capital (Achillea) plus specific name in lowercase (millefolium) — and who commemorated himself in his favourite plant, the delicately beautiful Linnaea borealis, “the northern Linnean”, whose common name is “twin flower”. It was a humble choice for the greatest of all systemizers and classifiers, but humility is a Christian virtue (albeit a little-practised one) and Linnaeus was a staunch Protestant.

That isn’t a coincidence: Protestantism was one of the foundation-stones of modern science and though that wasn’t necessarily good either for Protestantism itself or for the wider world, it may reflect the more introverted psychology of northern Europeans. As God and our relation to Him slowly slid off-stage, the natural world slid on and we eventually discovered that we were part of it. The staunchly Protestant Linnaeus led to the agnostic Darwin, the agnostic Darwin to the staunchly atheist Dawkins. Orbis redit in orbem — “the cycle ever repeats” — but science can still offer quiet aesthetic pleasures as it marches us back towards fanaticism and worse, and you can find some of them in books like this.

Pygmies and Secret PolicemenFootball Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Writhing Along in My AutomobileCrash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

A Boy and His BanditBeloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Despite everything, football – in the true sense of the word – is still the best and most beautiful sport on earth. Disliking it because of some of the people who take part in, run it or support it would be like disliking the English language because Tony Blair speaks it or Will Self writes in it. English is bigger than them and football is bigger than sets of Red Devil golf-clubs. Football even has good books written about it. This, unlike Nick Hornby’s far better-known Fever Pitch, is one of those good books. Hornby reminds me of a nose-picker. Yes, he may have devoted a great deal of time to his hobby and derived a great deal of pleasure from it, but why tell the world?

You don’t need to ask that question about this book, because football is the world’s most popular sport and this book is an exploration of how it influences the world’s culture and politics in all manner of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes disturbing ways too. Or amusing ones. Or both:

The general director agreed to an interview (for free) and the next day I found him in his office. It is basic and battered and located in the basement of the Omnisports Stadium, just a few doors down from the room where he kept 120 pygmies from the Cameroonian rainforests locked up last summer. Milla [a Cameroonian star at the 1990 World Cup] had invited the pygmies to play a few games at the Omnisports, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards (one of whom wore a Saddam Hussein T-shirt) and seldom fed them. A tournament spokesman explained to Reuters: “They play better if they don’t eat too much”. As for the imprisonment: “You don’t know the pygmies. They are extremely difficult to keep in control.” The Omnisports cook concurred: “These pygmies can eat at any time of the day and night and never have enough”. The little hunters themselves were too frightened to comment.

Their tournament was a disaster. Team names included Bee-sting of Lomie and the aptly named Ants of Salapoumbe, but only 50 fans bought tickets, and most of these came strictly to shout abuse at the pygmies.

Absurdity, as the Theatre of the Absurd taught us, can be cruel as well as funny, and Africa can be an absurd place, to the fullest extent of both senses. Football, there as elsewhere, reflects regional character:

Recently, three contracts have appeared for the sale of one player from Torpedo Moscow to Olympiakos Piraeus. One contract is for the Greek tax inspectors, one they show to the player, and the third is the real contract, but no-one knows which is which. (ch. 5, “The Secret Police Chief at Left-Half”)

The former Soviet Union is riddled with corruption, and so is its football. You’ll also learn in this chapter that clubs from Eastern Europe with “Dynamo” in their names were usually set up and run by the Secret Police. That is why they were so unpopular, unless they managed to associate themselves with nationalist aspirations, as Dynamo Kiev did. Kuper devotes a chapter to the club, with fascinating details of the “science of football” developed there that allowed Kiev to dominate European football during the mid-’80s with a team of super-fast, super-fit “robots”.

But I wonder whether pharmacology played its part in their success, as it may have done during the 1982 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina. Two Argentine forwards, Kuper writes, carried on running for an hour or two after one game, in order to work off drugs they had been injected with on the orders of Argentina’s military dictators. Winning the World Cup was important for public morale, and the generals were prepared to go to any lengths to help the team win it.

Few other sports can affect the mood of an entire nation for better or worse like that, and none can do it as powerfully as football. That makes football uniquely susceptible to corruption, and uniquely placed to reflect national character. Football isn’t the world, but you can find much of what’s important in the world and its people there. If you find yourself wondering how, let Kuper show you, all from the rivalry between Holland and Germany to the Pope’s season ticket at Barcelona by way of an American journalist who holds 0•3% of the shares in Charlton Athletic.

The only complaint I have about the book is the prose, which betrayed occasional tendencies towards one of my pet hates: what Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes as “elegant variation”: that is, referring to a “spade” as a “spade” once, then as a “pedally operated earth-moving implement” before you refer to it as a “spade” again. It’s an aesthetic flaw and that’s a shame in a book about the world’s most aesthetically pleasing sport.

Crash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

It’s got the same name as J.G. Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s now notorious film of J.G. Ballard’s book, but Nicholas Faith’s Crash could never have attracted as much attention at those two. A fiction about people deriving sexual pleasure from deaths and injuries in cars is much more important than the reality of deaths and injuries in cars. Rather in the way the fact that Princess Di died was much more important than why she died – which was because she was travelling in a grossly overpowered machine in a crowded city.

Lots more examples of the psychological paradoxes and lunacies of our love affair with the car can be produced, and this book produces them: “[D]uring Ulster’s quarter-century of Troubles, more deaths have been reported from road accidents than from the civil war.” But road deaths aren’t deliberate and malicious, so there’s no satisfying moral frisson to be had from them and they get ignored. Plus, we simply don’t like to face the truth – it’s too horrible to face it. Unless you stay inside all your life, you have to get near cars sometimes. That means that you can die in a very unpleasant and painful way by being hit by a car, whether you’re inside another car or not.

It’s much worse if you’re not, of course, because pedestrians take sixth or seventh place in the priorities of city-planners and architects. And car-designers:

One gesture that motor manufacturers could make an effort to reduce pedestrian injury would be to make the front of cars more pedestrian-friendly. The most dangerous vehicles are those with high ground clearance and ornaments, especially bull-bars – designed to show that the owner is used to herding cattle or elephants. These should be forbidden (or, at least, their owners assumed to be guilty if they ever hit a pedestrian).

They won’t be forbidden, because some people think they look good and they make cars more expensive, which helps the profits of the manufacturers, who have been putting profit above people for a long time. Cadillacs, for example, used to have “a prominent knife-like projection just above the instrument panel. It was designed to prevent reflection of the instrument panel onto the windshield. To accomplish this minor task, they produced as lethal a device as is seen in any American car.”

And was it removed when its lethality was pointed out? Maybe. If that didn’t interfere with profits. During the investigation into the way cars built by Ford were catching fire very easily, an American investigator

found various crucial Ford documents, one of which was a letter from the Ford Motor Company arguing why they should not make fuel-tank system improvements. They said that there will be 180 burn deaths per year at $200,000 value per burn death, there will be 180 serious burn injuries at $67,000 value per serious burn injury, and there will also be thousands of burned vehicles and there was a value on that. When you added all those numbers together it came out to an annual benefit of $50 million. Ford said we can fix the problem for $11 per vehicle but if you multiply the $11 per vehicle by the many millions of vehicle made per year, that came out to $150 million. So Ford was arguing that it was cheaper to let ’em burn.

The same kind of designers and the same kind of priorities were putting cars on the roads in Britain and Europe at the same time – and still are – and if car-manufacturers here were getting up to the same tricks as some American ones it’s quite possible that they got away with it, because we don’t have the same freedom of information laws:

Perhaps the most nefarious example of GM [General Motors]’s power emerged only in the 1970s through a Senate investigation. This revealed that it had headed a group of major companies that had bought and then shut down the light rail systems used for mass transit in Los Angeles, replacing it[,] partially and inadequately, with buses, nine out of ten of which were made by GM. The 1964 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles were directly traceable to the inhabitants’ inability to get to work by public transport.

That sort of thing shouldn’t be unexpected, but some of the other facts in the book should be. Seat-belts save lives, don’t they? Well, yes, of course they do. Or do they? Maybe not. Studies have been done that show they don’t seem to have had any effect, because they make drivers feel safer, drive faster, and crash more often and with worse effects. Paradoxical, but “paradoxical” is a word that comes to mind a lot when you read this book. Cars have very strange effects on our psychology and for all the huge damage they do and the deaths and injuries they cause, we don’t seem prepared to do anything about them.

Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Antinoüs was the Bithynian catamite of the Emperor Hadrian and was discovered dead in the river Nile, apparently drowned, in 130 AD. He was about 19 years old. But why did he die? How did he die? That’s been a mystery ever since. This book is a discussion of the possible solutions and of the way Antinoüs’s life and death have influenced Western art and culture right to the present day.

Unfortunately, although Beloved and God has a good crisp title, with a subtle double entendre, its title isn’t matched by its prose. This book is dense and sometimes difficult to read, with some spectacularly crass metaphors. But it’s still rewarding, if partly as an illustration of how biography is more a disguised (and sometimes not-so-disguised) way of talking about oneself than it is of talking about one’s subject. Royston Lambert was presumably a paederast in the classical sense, and when he talks about the complexity of Hadrian’s personality or the beauty of body and soul of Antinoüs, he’s really writing disguised autobiography or sexual fantasy. But as Lambert talks about himself, he also packs in a lot of classical history and tells the fascinating story of how the cult of Antinoüs was created by Hadrian and spread throughout the empire.

I don’t like Antinoüs’ looks or the cult that surrounded him: there’s something bloated and sickly about both of them. But nihil humanum and all that: there were plenty of boy-bandits in the ancient world and there are plenty today, which is why this book has had several editions. And it does have an interesting story to tell. Among other fascinating sidelights was the story of the Paedogogium in Rome (Trajan’s and, to a lesser extent, Hadrian’s boy brothel) and the grafitti scratched there, which seems to record an early Christian pupil being mocked by his peers: there’s a crude donkey-headed Christ crucified, with the subscription ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD. Elsewhere, Alexamenos seems to have struck back by proclaiming himself ALEXAMENOS THE FAITHFUL, which even I found touching. More importantly, there’s a good overview of the representation of Antinoüs in sculpture and coinage. And Lambert manages to convey the power of Antinoüs’ death in the Nile very well, describing the ancient worship of the river and the only occasionally successful attempts to placate its ferocity and caprice. Anyone drowned in the river, however humble their origin, automatically became a god and had shrines erected to them, but Antinoüs was special to someone very important and his cult became the biggest of all.

So what are the possible solutions to the mystery of his death? Lambert lists them: a boating accident; a murder by jealous rivals; a botched castration meant to preserve his youth; suicide prompted by the disappearance of youth and hence, inevitably, of Hadrian’s affections; a sacrifice to reverse successive failures of the very important Egyptian grain-harvest, which would soon have triggered trouble throughout the Empire. Traditionally the way to appease the Nile was to sacrifice to it and perhaps Antinoüs chose to die for the sake of his lover. Royston Lambert sacrificed in another way, because he was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and it was published posthumously. He could have been doing other things in the time he had left, but he wanted to leave a legacy and guide more people around the Antinoüm. But although this book is a memorial to Hadrian and Antinoüs, it’s also a memorial to Lambert himself. We can’t escape death and very few of us manage to escape ego.

Fratele Gets You NowhereO mie nouă sute optzeci şi patru, George Orwell, translated by Mihnea Gafiţa (Biblioteca Polirom 2002)

Whole Lotta ScottHighway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, Clinton Walker (Pan Books 1996)

The Bella and the BoltonianA Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger, Shaun Greenhalgh (Allen & Unwin 2017)

Clubbed to DeafThe Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2009)

Dizh Izh Vizh BizhVilest Visions: The Darkest, Despicablest, Disgustingest Decapitations vs The Nastiest, Noxiousest, Nauseatingest Necrophilia, Dr Samuel P. Salatta and Dr William K. Phipps (Visceral Visions 2018)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

O mie nouă sute optzeci şi patru, George Orwell, translated by Mihnea Gafiţa (Biblioteca Polirom 2002)

During much of the twentieth century, it was much easier for Romanians to live Nineteen Eighty-Four than to read it. Romania had a real Big Brother in the form of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-89). And the ideology that once tyrannized the country might as well have been called RomSoc. The novel was (I assume) banned under Ceaușescu, but all things must pass and Ceaușescu was one of them. So Nineteen Eighty-Four is now available in Romanian in this attractive edition by Polirom.

I don’t like the image on the front cover, though. It doesn’t capture what happens inside but I suppose it would be interesting if the novel is new to you. I don’t know how good the translation is because I don’t know Romanian. But I can understand much more of this book than I could of the Polish edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four I’ve kind-of reviewed here. As the name suggests, Romanian is a Romance language, descended from Latin and related to Italian, French and Spanish. And if you have a good knowledge of Latin and Italian, you’ll be able to understand a lot of Romanian without ever studying it. The title of the book is mostly Romance, for example, though I didn’t see that at first. “Why have they chosen a new title?” I thought. Well, they hadn’t, I realized: mie must be related to mille, nouă to novem, optzeci to octoginta and patru to quattuor.

But Italian and Latin will only take you most of the way to mastering Romanian in quadruple-quick time. If you add Bulgarian or Russian to the mix, you’d really be flying, because Romanian has borrowed a lot from Slavonic languages. There’s an example of that borrowing in part of the book that any educated English-speaker should be able to understand:


Compare an Italian translation:


And a Spanish:


And a French:


In Romanian, “RĂZBOIUL ESTE PACE” must mean “WAR IS PEACE”, but RĂZBOIUL doesn’t look Romance. It isn’t: it’s Slavonic. Elsewhere in the book you might spot this: Oceania se află în război cu Eurasia şi în alianţa cu Estasia – “Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia.” The change from războiul to război might help you work out that, as in Swedish, definite articles go at the end of words in Romanian. Which is odd, but Romanian is the oddest language in the Romance family. By no coincidence, it’s also the easternmost. I’d like to learn it, but I can say that of many other languages. This book was a fascinating glimpse into another room in the vast mansion of human language. And that mansion is not a totalitarian monstrosity like Nicolae Ceaușescu’s huge and horrible House of the Republic in Bucharest (now called the Palace of the Parliament). Instead, it’s a beautiful and mysterious place full of hidden rooms, secret doors and forking corridors.

And speaking of Nicolae again, how does Romanian translate that most famous of all Orwellian phrases? Like this: FRATELE CEL MARE STĂ CU OCHII PE TINE. That looks as though it means something like “Big Brother is with eyes on you.” It’s snappier in Italian: IL GRANDE FRATELLO VI GUARDA. Snappy or otherwise, the phrase didn’t serve its purpose. Orwell warned us about mass surveillance in one of the most successful novels ever written, but it looks as though he was doomed to be a Cassandra. This Romanian edition is another example of how he succeeded hugely as a writer and failed miserably as a physician. You might say that Fratele has got us nowhere.